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Management Failures Largely To Blame For D.C. Firefighter Shortage On New Year's '12

Over 100 D.C. firefighters and emergency responders called in sick on New Year's Eve 2012, leaving the department short-staffed and unable to respond to calls.
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Over 100 D.C. firefighters and emergency responders called in sick on New Year's Eve 2012, leaving the department short-staffed and unable to respond to calls.

A new report from the D.C. Inspector General finds that management failures and higher-than-usual requests for sick leave were to blame for the shortages that left D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services without personnel and equipment to adequately respond to emergencies on New Year's Eve 2012.

According to the report, 197 of the 449 firefighters and emergency responders that were scheduled to work on January 31, 2012 did not show up, forcing the department to take 13 vehicles — 12 of them ambulances — out of service. The shortage led to delayed response times, with an ambulance from Prince George's County forced to respond to a call of a D.C man who had gone into cardiac arrest and later died.

The 68-page report says that department officials failed to develop a contingency plan for such a possibility and responded too slowly when they realized that they would be short-staffed on New Year's Eve. It also says that D.C. officials failed to realize that restrictions on the use of overtime — which would have allowed the department to ask on-duty firefighters to work longer hours — did not apply at the time.

While the report dismisses claims of an organized "sick-out" as part of a protest of ongoing negotiations between the department and the firefighters' union, it does note that the use of certain types of sick leave increases on specific holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve.

Still, says the report, proper planning and communication would have helped mitigate the effects of the shortages.

"The OIG team believes that poor or no communication among officers contributed to the ineffective response to the New Year's Eve staffing shortages," states the report. "Multiple officers told the team that they recognized the possibility of a problem prior to New Year's Eve, but they said nothing to the team about collaborating with each other to develop strategies to prevent the shortages or to help respond effectively should they occur."

The report, which also highlights broader staffing problems, caps off a difficult year for the embattled fire department, which has faced accusations that it is not prepared to deal with the worst types of emergencies.

A recent internal audit found that the majority of the department's fleet of 369 ambulances and fire trucks are in "overall poor condition," and at a recent D.C. Council hearing Chief Kenneth Ellerbe could not account for the location of 13 new ambulances.

It also comes after a year of fighting between the union and Ellerbe. In March, the union voted no confidence in Ellerbe, who has said that he wants to change the number and length of shifts that firefighters and emergency responders work, a move the union opposes. Though department officials did not return calls for comment, in the past Ellerbe has said that shift changes would help address staffing challenges.

Despite the problems with the department, Mayor Vincent Gray has stood behind Ellerbe. In August, he said that the department is "turning a corner," and said that Ellerbe was making headway in fighting problems that were ignored by his predecessors. In recent months Ellerbe and Gray announced the purchase of new ambulances and hiring of new paramedics.

Oi g Staffing Shortage Report

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